Authors in Conversation: Melissa Febos and Garth Greenwell
January 20, 2017
A Discussion with Melissa Febos and Garth Greenwell, by Brian Gresko
In addition to their writing and teaching, Melissa Febos and Garth Greenwell are each politically active. Here, we briefly discuss not just how their work reflects their politics, but given the timeframe—November 2016—how Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election affected them as artists and human beings. (This conversation will continue in Slice: Issue 20, available March 2017.)
Can you talk briefly about your political activism? Melissa, I’m thinking of your work with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and Garth, of the way in which you’ve championed voices of gay writers in your reviews. I’m interested to know how that political work informs your art, and how your art has informed your political work—or are those two parts of yourself separate?
My conception of the writer has always overlapped that of the activist. So many of the writers whom I loved first were both—Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, bell hooks, Baldwin, and on and on—and so this idea of the writer as a public intellectual, a namer of social injustice, was integral to my own envisioning of myself as a writer. On some level, I think most writers consider their work to be political, if only in the sense of it creating empathy through narrative, through characters. I also think that early in a writer’s career, the work necessary to get your footing is so tremendous that it leaves little room for anything else. In the years between graduate school and post-publication of my first book, I was often adjuncting at three or four schools, up to six classes a semester, and trying to finish my book, barely making ends meet. There wasn’t enough time to sleep, let alone makes zines or whatever I had done before then. So perhaps it was partly out of necessity that I conflated my writing with activism. For a long time, this seemed like enough. And despite what I saw as the inherent activism of writing about the experiences of marginalized people (which I do believe in!), my political activism and my creative work seemed to operate on separate tracks. In recent years this has changed. The inherent activism of my writing no longer feels like enough, and the result has been manifold—my work (both writing and teaching) has become more explicitly political, and my activism has become both more engaged and more adjacent to that work.
A big part of this is the work I do with an incredible group of women for VIDA. We all volunteer many, many hours to our cause. I curate and plan a lot of events for VIDA, and that work so overlaps my own interests that it’s not so hard to muster the extra energy on top of my own writing and my full-time teaching job. (I have long been an event curator of things like an annual queer reading around Pride, and the series that I hosted for ten years—this work is familiar and fun for me.) However, the more administrative work—sending mailings, the long email chains and conference calls—sometimes feels like more than I can manage in an already stuffed work life. But I have a very conscious habit of reminding myself that it is not busy work; it is my activism, and activism is largely administrative work. It is not all protesting and strategizing and writing; it is also stuffing envelopes and answering endless emails. It is also filling my class syllabi with women and queer writers, disabled writers, and writers of color. It is nominating and elevating historically suppressed voices at every opportunity. There is so much work to do, and I find ways to do it in every corner of my life. It’s not always fun or convenient, but it is always worth it. If we don’t do this work, then who will?
I do think there’s an element of advocacy in my critical work, in the sense that I want to help bring attention to writers who struggle to be noticed, especially queer writers and writers from other languages. What seems least interesting to me as a critic is to give a simple thumbs up or thumbs down to a particular book. What seems much more valuable to me is to give readers a map to a territory they may know very little about. That might mean writing about Pedro Lemebel in the context of queer activism in Latin America, or about Georgi Gospodinov in the context of the Bulgarian literary tradition. Those pieces are challenging, which is part of why I like writing them: I get to learn a lot as I work on them.
Over the last decade or so, my extra-literary advocacy has been centered on LGBT young people. It was very clear what that meant in Bulgaria since there was so much work to be done in my school community and in the immediate surroundings, and my work as a high school teacher gave me an obvious role in that work. One of the challenges for the next year is to figure out how to do that work now, without an institutional affiliation and in a place where the challenges are very different. It’s clear that public schools are likely to be hit hard in the next four years, and I think writers should step in to try to fill in the gaps.
It’s been a little more than a week since Donald Trump won the presidential election. How are you feeling?
I feel frightened, and more despondent than I ever have in relation to the politics of our country. I think the next four years are going to be dangerous; they’re going to require vigilance and solidarity; maybe even more, they’re going to require generosity and imagination. It’s those last things that I fear are scarcest in our political culture right now. I don’t think there can be a democracy if we seal ourselves off in ideologically homogeneous spheres, and I think we’ve forgotten how to disagree with each other in a way that can maintain a meaningful political discourse. Part of this is social media, which makes it so easy to curate our social interactions and block people who hold views we find objectionable; part of it is the pitch of our news, which depends on ever-increasing hysteria for ratings, so that now when there are real reasons for hysteria we don’t have a usable rhetoric.
I don’t want to live in an ideologically homogeneous world. I want to live in a world that can tolerate diversity of thought; I want to be able to break bread with people who have a significantly different vision of the world than I do. I also come from the conservative South, and I sometimes feel it’s a place I barely survived; I know how worldviews can be dangerous. I’m afraid I don’t know anymore how to have a conversation with people whose vision of the world seems to exclude me, even as I know people with such a vision—nearly everyone in my family, nearly everyone I grew up with—can be loving people, people of deep decency in other respects, and people who have grievances of their own and are deserving of my sympathy and action. I need help in imagining a way to make a functioning social sphere in which political alliances can be forged with people, some of whose views I disagree with—even if those views are painful to me, even if I feel they victimize me.
I think those alliances are going to be necessary for our survival. I need to find a way to work for environmental justice with people who oppose abortion rights, to work for workers’ rights with people who oppose gay marriage. And I need to find a way to have friendships across those differences, even when people hold views I find indefensible. I was deeply moved by Peter Orner’s piece in the New York Times about his friendship with a Trump voter. I’m not willing to draw a line that leaves the millions of people who voted for Trump somehow outside the scope of human regard. We need to be able to talk to them. That may mean treating them with a respect and dignity their views seem to deny us.
I don’t even know how to talk about these things in a way that gets beyond “them” and “us.” So much of my politics has been a response to pain, so many of my reactions to others have been about anger and terror. I have to find a way to remember that the man who calls me a faggot on the street is a human being, that his life has exactly the value of my own life, that he is complex and various as I am complex and various, that his hatred of me does not exhaust that value or complexity or variety. I want to forgive him. I want to believe in America, in that dream of a pluralistic, cohesive America Whitman articulated, which has never been exactly real but has also never been exactly impossible; it has been an ideal, existing in a realm of just-possibility, pointing a bearable way forward. It has never felt so nearly impossible to me as it does now. I’ve been quiet on social media about the election: in part because I feel there’s so much I don’t understand, in part because I don’t think there’s much use in my airing my despair, and in part because I want to be quiet enough to hear someone else’s hope. And also in part because I think I need to get off social media and into the world more often. But I’m not sure I know how to begin.
The only elective thing I’ve been longer than I’ve been a writer is a feminist. I was raised by a Buddhist, bisexual, feminist psychotherapist, and I spent many hours of my childhood marching in peaceful protest. In junior high school, I was the only out queer person that I knew, and I spent my weekends reading bell hooks and Howard Zinn and Simone de Beauvoir, and making zines that I would leave all over our small town. I felt different from my peers, and I was different. I grew up in a very white, middle-class culture, and I was queer and radical and vegetarian and bookish and had a Puerto Rican sea captain father. Most of all, learning what it meant to be female in this country (world?) was a devastating revelation. I was furious. I found comfort in an “us” versus “them” binary ideology pretty early. I remember once sitting in the passenger’s seat of my mother’s car—I must have been thirteen or fourteen—and driving by a small group of anti-abortion protestors. I rolled down the window and gave them the middle finger. My mother admonished me, and the correction stuck. She understood that we disagreed with them—fervently disagreed, but also that my aggression was no help to our cause. Even a minuscule dehumanization of people who disagreed with us was a blow to us all and a betrayal of our deepest beliefs. Like her, I have tried like hell to be true to both my profound empathic instinct and my fighter instinct. In this terrifying moment, all I can do is redouble my commitment to both of those inner truths. I will fight like hell, and I won’t squash my empathy in order to do so. We can be tender soldiers, and, in fact, we must be if we want to survive even our own “triumph.”
I woke up the morning after this election completely devastated. I had to teach in a few hours, to college students in a red county in New Jersey. I felt this intense longing to be rescued. As if my mother, or God, or Obama could swoop in and break up a game that had gotten far out of control. Partly this is human. Partly it is the symptom of my own (and much of my generation’s) privilege. Despite being a lifetime activist, I have been able to take for granted many privileges, including those rights that my mother’s generation fought for. I think we’ve been spoiled by these years of steady progress, by eight years of Obama, and we’ve been able to believe that however fucked up our country (which has always depended upon institutional white supremacy and patriarchy), our forward progress would always remain so. For that reason, November 9 was a rude awakening, and a necessary one. Our former complacency will no longer do. Posting on social media and making fun of reality shows will no longer do.
That morning, my wish for rescue ended in resolve. As a writer and teacher it is my turn to do the rescuing, to generate the acts of creation powerful enough to transform our country. I hear writers talk a lot about the political power of our work—the inherent activism of art. I don’t think that’s enough anymore. The luxury of letting any of my energy languish is over. I am heartbroken and scared and, yes, sometimes paralyzed by what I see happening, but I am also furiously focused on the ways that I can employ my own strengths and privileges to effect change—with my writing, in my classrooms, with my body, and in my own heart.
I teach at a school where the undergraduate student body elected Trump in our university’s straw poll. I couldn’t walk into my classroom and give my students the middle finger. It was crucial that I not alienate any of them. Because I respect my job, because they deserve my respect as humans, and because we are going to need them. Instead, I walked into my classroom and told them all to describe a country in which they, and the people most demographically opposite them, could both enjoy the same liberties and pursue their own happinesses. Then I asked them to make a list of concrete ways that they could manifest that reality. I basically led them through the very process I had completed earlier that morning. I can’t “fix” how I feel about what’s happening in our country, but I can choose how I contribute to it. There is some hope in that.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press, 2010) and the essay collection Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, 2017). Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Granta, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Salon, the New York Times, Guernica, Dissent, Poets & Writers, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and the Center for Women Writers, and she has been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, Anderson Cooper Live, and elsewhere. She is a three-time MacDowell Colony fellow and has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ragdale, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently assistant professor of creative writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She serves on the board of directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and lives in Brooklyn.
Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a best book of 2016 by more than twenty publications, including Publishers Weekly, GQ, the Guardian, Esquire, and NPR and is being translated into ten languages. His short fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, A Public Space, VICE, and elsewhere, and he has contributed nonfiction to the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, the New York Times, and the Atlantic. He holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. He lives in Iowa City.
Brian Gresko is the editor of When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, most recently Poets & Writers magazine and the L.A. Review of Books. He co-runs the reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and teaches creative nonfiction for the Sackett Street Writing Workshop.